Road to Euro 2012
There were one or two scares along the way, but France eventually finished top of their Euro 2012 qualifying group, an outcome that seemed unlikely when they lost their opening match at home against Belarus. Since then, Laurent Blanc's team has gone unbeaten for nineteen games, and now that the squad has found its identity under a talented and much sought after coach, France could well be a force at an international tournament for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. There's an honesty about Blanc's squad, and that's what enabled the players to bounce back from that nightmare defeat back in September 2010. Gone are the wastes of space and the arrogant ruiners of a dressing room, and in are the real men, the potential achievers and the winners.
That's not in any way to accuse Blanc's team of playing with a functionality and lack of panache. They may not have a Michel Platini or a Zinedine Zidane, and they may start from the solid defensive base that conceded only four qualifying goals, but they can play. I have a slight concern that those qualifying statistics flatter them at the back, and Phillippe Mexes and Adil Rami don't always fill me with confidence, but Blanc's team has improved all the way through qualifying, and continued to do so in their brilliant friendly win over Germany last March. If the upward curve continues, then they look a big price at 13.012/1 to rule Europe once again.
France now have the President that they need, and it looks also as if they have the right football manager. Blanc has been in charge since the debacle in South Africa, and while it was never going to be an easy task, he has certainly made great strides. He started well by suspending the entire World Cup 23 from his first game in charge, and asserts a calm authority over his players. He ill advisedly became involved in the row over quotas last year, but rode that storm mainly because of the credit that he has accumulated over the years as both a player and coach. This is a man who usually oozes class and who played in three European Championships, winning in 2000. I hope that his treatment of Yoann Gourcuff prior to the announcement of the Euro 2012 squad was an aberration, rather than a sign that the coach is trying to reshape himself as a tough guy.
Raymond Domenech made many stupid and wilful decisions during his time as the coach of Les Bleus, and the most ridiculous one was unquestionably not to take Karim Benzema to he 2010 World Cup. Benzema has developed into one of best strikers in the world, and is the unsung hero of Real Madrid. He scored three goals in seven qualifying games, but his game is about plenty more than simply hitting the back of the net. Benzema will work tirelessly for his team and create openings for others. The only debate is whether Benzema should have a strike partner in the shape of the superb Olivier Giroud. Blanc's favoured system allows for only one striker, but there are many in France who feel that he should dispense with an attacking midfielder and switch to playing with two strikers. It's unlikely to happen, but it's something that we may see during the course of matches which aren't going France's way.
Yann M'Vila may well arrive in the Premier League next season and be a massive success. His recruitment will widely be reported as one of those inspired pieces of business that show the depth of a club's scouting nous. The truth is everyone in Europe should already know about M'Vila: the 21 year old has had an outstanding season with Rennes and was fundamental to France's miserly record in qualifying. He has filled the gap left by the loss of form of Lassana Diarra and then some. There won't be a better holding midfielder at the tournament, and to my mind M'Vila is a leading contender to finish as player of the tournament.
M'Vila really should qualify as "the youngster", as he's the youngest member of the French squad at just 21. I think that he's important enough to be the top man though, and so will have to choose a slightly older player as my youngster. Make sense? Thought not. So I'll pick a 25 year old who is getting a second chance and so is a young player in many ways. A lot of people had given up on Hatem Ben Arfa and I was one of them. When the former bad boy signed for Newcastle it looked like an almighty gamble, but he is finally showing us just how good he is on a regular basis. In my opinion, Ben Arfa scored the goal of the Premier League season, with that remarkable slalom against Bolton Wanderers, and he has the talent to light up the tournament. I doubt that he'll start, but substitutes have played a pretty big role in French international triumphs (just ask Sylvain Wiltord and David Trezeguet) and Ben Arfa could just be another hit from the bench.
You've probably gathered from what I've said already that I really fancy France to go well at Euro 2012. They don't have a particularly well known squad, but they have a host of potential star quality. I really like Blanc as a coach, and I like it when you can see the reason for a price, but disagree entirely with that reasoning. France are as big as they are to win Euro 2012 because of their huge underachievement at the last two major international tournaments, and because there's an element of mistrust about the unheralded names in their squad. But I think that they're a massive price at 13.012/1, and will give us a rock solid run for our money. They're my outright selection to win Euro 2012, and are also a big enough price to win Group D at 2.789/5.